Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827)

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Charles Willson Peale

Self-Portrait, 1822

The elderly artist holding a paintboard and brushes

Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, gift of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd, 1993.35.22.

Oil on canvas, 29¼ x 24⅛ in. (74.3 x 61.3 cm)

The fame of Peale as activist and portraitist of the generation of the Revolution may obscure the part he played at the same time in scientific activity of the new country. His activities in obtaining and preparing specimens for his museum enlivened the programs of the American Philosophical Society. In the years 1799-1802, he lectured extensively on natural history and the contents of his museum, both at the University and at the museum. His internal correspondents then included the scientists Lamarck, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire1 and Sir Joseph Banks.

In 1782 the family house on 3rd and Lombard became first a gallery of his portraits, and then the first Peale Museum. In the Autumn of 1794, family and museum took up residence in Philosophical Hall. Two weeks were required to move all the specimens, carried in hand barrows and on shoulders in what became daily parades. Still enlarging, particularly with the addition of the bones of the mastodons, the whole assembly was in 1802 granted the upper floor and Assembly Room of the State House, there to remain throughout the lifetime of Peale.

Two years before Lewis began his journey, Peale, supported by the APS, had organized the first scientific expedition in American history. The objective was to obtain a complete skeleton of the animal whose huge bones had been mystifying collectors for a century. He retrieved in two months bones that enabled an almost complete assembly, lacking only the frontal bones of the skull. Peale devised an ingenious derrick for removing water from the marsh in which the bones lay; it is portrayed in his painting, The Exhumation of the Mastodon.


1. Jean Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) was a French naturalist whose theories, first published in 1801, were later credited by Charles Darwin with providing the background for the latter man's theory of evolution. Geoffroy St. Hilaire (1772-1844) was appointed at the age of 21 to the chair of zoology at the founding of the the Museum of Natural History in Paris. His theory on the inter-relatedness of anatomy across species was also credited as anticipatory by Darwin. Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820) began his career as a collector and a patron of biological research for Captain James Cook's explorations of 1768-71—another anticipation of Darwin, but as a scientific passenger on a circumnavigation of the globe.

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge Cost Share Program